When Wil Lindsay was a child, he would sometimes hear low-level radio signals from Cuba jumbled in with whatever classic rock station his father listened to around the house, an experience that led him to a lifelong fascination with the radio and the seemingly magical things it’s sometimes capable of.
After years spent tinkering with radios as an adult, purposefully seeking out and tuning in to those same weak, faraway signals, Lindsay came across a community of people using hacked radios as a means to communicate with their lost relatives. He took a quick interest. “I immediately started studying the history,” he tells me. “There’s a mythology to this, and I started looking at the history to see where bits of it had been proven and disproven.” Lindsay investigated the history of the repurposed radio and video equipment these ghost hunters use and now uses those same technologies to do his own multimedia performance art.
“The idea is, if your spirit or personality goes into the beyond, that there might be some kind of spirit that gives you the power to manipulate magnetic waves,” he says. “So a bunch of people are going to Radio Shack, buying these cheap radios, snipping some wires, and listening to see if they can have a conversation with their passed relatives.”
Lindsay performs on an array of ragtag devices, each of which has been used by ghost hunters to suss out lingering spirits. With everything running at once, the effect is akin to a miniaturized David Tudor installation or Ken Kesey acid happening—ominous, droning sounds bounce around, punctuated a litany of blinking lights and multicolored abstract visuals. The first device is the aforementioned cheap radio with its wires snipped, modified so that it can infinitely scan through several frequencies per second. Lindsay’s also running a radio receiver that picks up signals below the AM band and another that processes static through a speech synthesis device. The crown jewel is a video feedback apparatus known as a Schreiber system that generates psychedelic swirls of color.
Lindsay opens his talk at this year’s Hackers On Planet Earth conference by projecting an image of a cloud on a screen and asking the audience what it is. “It’s a cloud!” shouts one audience member. “It looks like a rabbit,” says another. “It’s an image file,” chuckles a third, a joke that gets more laughs than you might expect–we are at a conference of programmers, after all.
The exercise is intended to illustrate apophenia, or the tendency to perceive familiar patterns in random or meaningless sets of data. When you look at the front of a car and see the headlights and grille grinning back at you, or mistakenly hear someone calling your name in a crowd of people, that’s apophenia at work.
Like most reasonable people, Lindsay is skeptical of those who say they’re using broken radios to confer with spirits, and that’s where the apophenia comes in. “Even if we have completely random data sets shoved at us,” i.e., the sound of a malfunctioning radio, “our brains want to organize them,” Lindsay says. “We try to order it, we try to systemize it, we try to compare it to things we already know and understand–and through that, sometimes completely random sounds could sound like sounds that are familiar to us.”
Though Lindsay has his doubts about the veracity ghost hunters’ claims, he maintains a fascination with them. When I ask him whether or not he really believes he’s channeling wandering apparitions when he performs, he speaks cautiously. “What I can say is there are definitely audio sources which we cannot account for, to that point. Where do they come from? I don’t know, and maybe that’s none of my business.”
When another attendee asks him the same question at the end of his talk, he’s a little more candid. Have the spirits ever spoken to Wil Lindsay? “Honestly, I did more acid than Timothy Leary when I was younger,” he says. “So I couldn’t tell you.”